You step onto the subway, uncertain if you want to be on this train. You're supposed to meet someone, but you're not sure you really care.
The doors hiss. You turn. They slam shut in your face.
Too late now. You're along for the ride. The train takes off down the tracks.
You peruse the cabin. You've never seen this man before, but for some reason you're certain you'll recognize him when you do.
Two rows of seats line the car. On the left, a young couple. The woman wears a babushka. Her head bobs as the train hurtles along the tracks. A tattered paperback written in Cyrillic letters rests open against her swollen belly, as though her unborn child is already reading. The man looks slight of build but holds a copy of the "Gulag Archipelago" with the weathered hands of a dockworker. A train ticket protrudes from the front pocket of his dark plaid sports jacket. You steal a glance. Destination: Hartford, Connecticut. Port of origin: Ellis Island.
A few steps further on the right, a teenager beckons you to buy a jar of native honey for only a dollar from the twelve-pack on the floor in front of him. You detect a bit of an Eastern European accent, though you wonder if it's your imagination. You pass on the honey, and a slight feeling of guilt gnaws at you. The kid doesn't smile, as though he doesn't know how, but he asks politely, and bows his head to thank you for considering it when you say no. He returns to his homework, which consists of textbooks in three different languages. You recognize the English and the Spanish ones, spy a Ukrainian-English dictionary beside the third, and realize that English isn't his first language. The dictionary is open to a bookmark: a purple ribbon with a gold seal for first place in a writing contest.
Beyond the kid are three college students engaged in a heated debate in an Asian-sounding language. One is dressed in a Dartmouth jacket, a second in a sweater from the University of Melbourne, and the third, an Asian, in a sweatshirt with the word "Todai" written on it. The two Westerners carry advanced Japanese language texts. A conductor walks up and asks them for their tickets. The Dartmouth student opens a billfold and flashes a pass: all the words are written in Japanese. The conductor checks it, walks past and ignores you. You turn to see if he's going to ask anyone else for tickets but he's gone.
A man and a woman sit at the far right side of the bench seats. They appear to be in their mid-thirties. They wear wedding rings. They are pressed closely against each other but sitting as far away from everyone else as possible. The man is alternately writing on a laptop and staring into space. The woman is reading the New York Post. You see the date on the paper: September 10, 2001.
At the doorway beyond the seats on the right, a man in a fine Italian suit stands talking into his cell phone. You check your phone, not realizing there was a signal in the subway. You discover there isn't one, but somehow this guy's phone is working. You perk up yours ears to eavesdrop, and catch bits and pieces of several conversations in multiple languages. You hear some Spanish, Japanese, and what sounds like Russian. You catch some English. Investment performance. Risk control. Client Service. When he finally puts his phone away, he looks wistfully at the book wedged in the sleeve of his black canvass briefcase. You check the binding for the title: "Kolymsky Heights," by Lionel Davidson.
The train screeches to a halt. You step aside to get out of the way. The man in the suit, the one beside the woman, the American college student, and the teenage linguist get off the train. You turn to see who's left. No one. Like the conductor checking tickets, everyone else has somehow disappeared.
You step off the train. An amorphous figure waits on the platform. As the men and boys from the train pass through the figure, they vanish. The figure gradually takes shape. When the teenager is finally absorbed, a man stands holding a pen. Although you've never seen him before, you know it's the guy you were supposed to meet.
You think back to the train ride. You realize you know some things about him.
You know some things about me.